We read the same magazines you do — the ones that pick out all the rad places to live every year: Asheville, Bozeman, New Paltz, Carbondale, Victor. And we fantasize about living in those places, and then we go back to work in our cities. Hey, we may not have the mountains at our back door, but we do have good Thai food around the corner, right?
Odds are, you live and work in a city, or an “urban area,” as the U.S. census puts it. If you have to live in a city to do whatever it is you do for a living, you might as well live somewhere with decent access to the outdoors. Here’s our list of the 10 best adventure cities in the United States (in alphabetical order).
Alaska is home to the biggest mountain terrain in the 50 states, and Anchorage is the most cosmopolitan place you can live to be near it. The 250-mile long Chugach Range is right out the back door and receives more than 600 inches of snow every year. Talkeetna, the launchpad for Alaska Range mountaineering (you might have heard of 20,320-foot Denali), is 2.5 hours to the north. Anchorage was birthplace of the fatbike, a snowbike with two rims welded together, long before you ever heard of a Surly Pugsley. Valdez ice climbing, salmon fishing on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaskan brown bears, bush pilots, Into The Wild — you know, Alaska.
Austin boasts great terrain for triathlon training — Texas’ famous Hill Country begins just north of town for cyclists, temps are warm during the winter, and the warm waters of Barton Springs Pool are good for open-water swimming year round. Town Lake is great for paddling and SUP year round. The Barton Creek Greenbelt holds dozens of legit sport climbing routes on real rock, outside, and climbers who live in Austin are a half-day’s drive from the legendary multi-pitch sport routes at El Potrero Chico in Mexico. One of the guys who won that bike race over in France a bunch of times used to live and train here.
Charlotte, North Carolina
The U.S. National Whitewater Center, with its artificial ¾-mile Class II-IV course for kayakers and rafters, and its 14 miles of trails, and its 46-foot outdoor climbing wall, is a big reason to call Charlotte the best adventure city in the south. But its proximity to other rad stuff helps too: It’s two hours from the 100-plus miles of mountain bike trails in not-so-secret-anymore Brevard, three hours from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as two hours from almost every great rock climbing venue in North Carolina: Linville Gorge, Looking Glass, Rumbling Bald, and Stone Mountain. If real whitewater is your think, Charlotte is two hours’ drive from the Nantahala River and a four-hour drive from the legendary Ocoee.
Denver is a day-tripping dirt-lover’s dream: Within a two-hour drive of downtown Denver, climbers can count on almost 10,000 routes — sport, trad, alpine, bouldering, single-pitch, multi-pitch. Plus hundreds of miles of trails within that same radius for hiking, trail running and mountain biking. Plus 850 miles of bike trails in the city. If high altitude is your thing, Colorado has it: of the state’s 54 14ers , a dozen are within two hours’ drive of Denver. Weekend skiing at nearby ski resorts can such with the traffic on I-70, but if you can score weekdays (or sick days) off work, there’s a huge amount of mountain terrain to be explored, on- and off-piste.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Vegas isn’t all strippers, gambling, excessive drinking and eating, and flashing lights. Well, okay, the Strip kind of is. But just outside America’s den of sin is incredible desert terrain: Red Rock National Conservation Area is one of the best all-around rock climbing areas in the United States, with thousands of routes from boulder problems to 20-plus pitches on technicolor sandstone and patina. Vegas is the launching point for many a desert road trip loop, including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, and the sheer thousand-foot walls of Zion National Park. But wait, there’s more: Kayaking in the coves on Lake Mead and summer hiking on 11,900-foot Mount Charleston are both within an hour of town.
Los Angeles, California
OK, L.A. is not the most livable city in America. But the terrain outside the city is better than most. Canyoneers have the technical San Gabriel Mountains. Climbers have the legendary Taqhuitz and Suicide Rocks (birthplace of the Yosemite Decimal System for climbing grading, and some of Yosemite’s legendary climbers). Joshua Tree is a couple hours’ drive to the east. Big Bear, two hours away, was one of the centers of development for downhill and cross-country mountain bike racing — and the site of the first winter X Games back in 1997. Whale watching, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking at Channel Islands National Park are a weekend trip from the city. Midnight Ridazz is one of the biggest, baddest regular grassroots bike rides in America, growing from six cyclists to thousands, and spawning chapters in other American cities. And, if you plan and manage the L.A. traffic right, and you can ski at a resort and surf in the same day.
Like bikes? Portland is one of the League of American Bicyclists’ only “platinum-level” bicycle-friendly communities and the beacon of bike infrastructure in the U.S. There are 2,100 rides, races, and other bicycle events held annually in Portland, which is more than six per day. If you’re a rock climber, yeah, it rains a lot in Portland, but it doesn’t much at the legendary Smith Rock, where 1,500 routes climb the welded volcanic tuff and basalt cliffs three hours from Portland. The surf scene on the Oregon coast is low-key, but legit, and doable year-round with some fortuitous weather and a thick wetsuit. Mount Hood offers year-round skiing and snowboarding 90 minutes from downtown, and one of the most accessible entry-level Cascade Volcano climbs — a single-day crampon-and-ice-axe slog up the south side from the Timberline Lodge.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Know who’s getting more done before 9 a.m. than you are all day, some days? Black Diamond Equipment employees on their weekday dawn patrols starting at 5 a.m. or earlier all year, rock climbing and ski mountaineering for a few hours before they hit the office in southeast Salt Lake City. When you can look down the street and see 11,000-foot peaks at the end, it’s hard to forget how much you want to be in the mountains, biking, hiking, climbing and skiing. Thousands of rock and ice climbing routes, as well as seven ski resorts, sit less than an hour away from downtown SLC in the Wasatch Range.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco is an hour and a half from surfing epicenter of Santa Cruz, and just across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County, the birthplace of mountain biking. And even though it’s still 3.5 hours away, San Francisco is the closest (rad) city to Yosemite National Park. Cyclists and runners can hammer their legs and lungs on the city’s steep hills, without sweating or freezing to death in the mild temps, which steadily hover between 45 and 70 year-round. Point Reyes National Seashore, 35 miles away, holds 70,000 acres of wild forests, beaches, and coastal strand.
Surprisingly, Seattle actually gets less annual precipitation than New York (or Boston, or Washington D.C., while we’re at it), and it’s not rainy all year here. If you’re a skier who needs to live in a city, you’re stoked on Seattle: Crystal Mountain, Stevens Pass, and Snoqualmie Pass are all within 2 hours of the city, and Mount Baker Ski Area, record holder for the highest seasonal snowfall of any U.S. resort, is 2.5 hours from downtown. Washington ranks #1 in the League of American Bicyclists list of bicycle friendly states. The city is a 3.5-hour drive from the climbing and mountain biking mecca of Squamish and two hours from some of the most inspiring mountaineering terrain in the continental U.S., the Cascades. Also, if you want to school yourself for climbing the world’s big mountains, there’s this peak called Mount Rainier, which you can see from Seattle on a clear day.
Seattle photo by Shutterstock